This remarkable book switches time periods from England in 1856 to contemporary New England, couching its characters in artistic illusion. Impossible to put down until the final page is turned, the crux of the novel is an elusive painting by
the controversial and moody J.M.W. Turner, one of the most famous (and mysterious) artists of his time. Ensconced for a weekend at Sussex’s Petworth House, the ancestral home of patron Lord Egremont, Turner is about to embark on his classical masterwork, a “scandalous” composition of Helen of Troy and her lover, Paris.
The remarkable Lord Egremont wants his beautiful wife, Mrs. Spencer, and young, handsome, sweet-tempered Charles Grant to pose in a work that is sure to produce waves of yearning, sorrow and beauty. While Grant writes impassioned missives to his lover, David, fearful that he will be found wanting and prematurely cast out of Petworth, Mrs. Spencer finds herself falling under the spell of
the unprepossessing Turner. The artist is determined that his work will be painted in her image, despite the protestations of contemptuous George Wyndham, Egremont’s pious bastard son and heir.
Over the course of many generations, Van Essen unfolds the provenance of Turner’s seductive masterwork and
his use of light, color and shadow in its creation: “the mere beauty of the thing that Turner has made makes him a dangerous man.”
The painting presents a lost paradox for Henry Leidon, who accidentally stumbles upon it when he inherits Birch Lodge. The lodge, situated by a lake deep in the Adirondacks, was once owned by Cornelius Rhinebeck, a wealthy New York industrialist. Rhinebeck secretly bought the painting in the 1930s, and like Leidon
fell in love with the beauty and passion of the great work.
Other claimants also vie for the painting. Just after the 2001 terrorist attacks, sophisticated Gina arrives at Madison Partners, where art dealer Arthur Bryce seeks to lay claim. Just before Bryce enlists Gina to travel to England to trade in information and research the history of Petworth House, he informs her
that he has obtained a document written in 1837 by George Wyndham which accuses Turner of improperly debauching his fragile father in his dotage and creating a painting that he boorishly describes as “infamous.” Although Wyndham threatened to destroy
the painting, Bryce is convinced that it might still exist.
Telling his story from differing perspectives through various first-person narratives, Van Essen steadily unfolds his characters' souls in soulful, revelatory prose.
Young Grant is shy of Turner’s attention, perhaps even his seduction. His mixture of shame and outrage is counterbalanced by Mrs. Spencer’s affection for her aging husband. She can’t quite believe
that she actually laid upon the couch in the most “undignified and humiliating of postures,” and she’s even more disturbed by the perverse pleasure she took in debasing herself before the great Turner.
Amid grand Petworth House, with its lake, pleasure grounds and large swaths of the Sussex countryside, the painting
exudes a powerful sexuality on those fortunate enough to come into contact with it. Most affected is Henry, who “walks through a world of shadows” while waxing equally nostalgic of happier days with his wife, Susan. Traveling to London and then onto Petworth, Henry craves to connect with all of the Turner paintings as "The Center of the World"
brings his life into sharper focus. Like Gina and Bryce, Henry knows that the painting has immense value; giving it up would be like killing a part of himself.
Van Essen’s tale is not intended for rapid reading, but felicity of expression is an ample reward for careful perusal. Telling of artistic beauty and sensuality, this lovely, intense novel mines the mysterious, mystical bond that connects lives over a century apart. For Henry, the recognition of this bond and the salvation of his relationship with Susan are evidence that life's most precious things--love, redemption and self-respect--require acceptance of the intangible nature of faith.